A Palestinian child holds a picture of her relative during a protest in Tulkarem calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. (Mouid Ashqar, Maan Images)
by Yossi Wolfson - July 31, 2007
Two recent reports by human-rights organizations open a small window into the torture chambers of Israel. Eight years have passed since the High Court made its historic decision forbidding torture, and now it is clear that the General Security Services (GSS)-aka Shin Bet-have found ways of circumventing the law. The two reports differ in content, methodology, style and analysis, but a unified picture emerges.
The report of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) bears the title, Ticking Bombs.*
Its core consists of nine testimonies by people who were interrogated. PCATI puts them "among the severest testimonies received by the committee in the years 2004-2006." From the material in this report, including judicial decisions and GSS memoranda, it appears that the tortures were carried out by means of a loophole in the High Court decision of 1999. The decision enables the Attorney General to refrain from placing torturers on trial, if he finds, in retrospect, that the defense of necessity is available to them. Whereas the court had in mind the rash, spontaneous act that an interrogator might perform when lives were in immediate danger, this exception has become a streamlined procedure for granting license to torture.
The other human-rights report, Absolute Prohibition, has been jointly published by HaMoked (the Center for Defense of the Individual) and B'tselem.**
It is based on a different methodology. In order to get a picture of the standard methods used in interrogations, interviews-mostly conducted in prison- were initiated with Palestinians belonging to two samples. The first consisted of 34 who were seized in a wave of arrests after a suicide attack in Netanya on July 12, 2005; they were arrested under various circumstances and were brought to the GSS for interrogation within two weeks of detention. The second sample of 39 consisted of Palestinians who were arrested in targeted operations during the second half of 2005 and were brought to interrogation within 48 hours. The assumption (borne out by the results) was that the second sample would include people whose interrogation was deemed urgent and that even harsher methods would have been applied to them. Whereas PCATI's report brings raw testimonies with minimal editing, that of HaMoked and B'tselem focuses on analyzing interrogation methods, their implications and the question of their legality.
The PCATI testimonies are horrifying. The same methods appear repeatedly. One of these is reported by Muhammad Barjiyye, 22, a student in Business Administration. "They put me into a new position - sideways on a chair with nothing behind my back. They tied each of my legs to a chair leg, then took off my blindfold, saying they wanted to see me. Oscar the interrogator sat across from me and stepped on my feet so that I would not move. Micha and Gur yelled all the time. Oscar said that he would grab my shirt from the front upwards, and that I should lean back. He said I had to lean midway, because if I leaned all the way back my back would break [because the feet were immobilized-YW], and if I sat up in the regular way he would hit me. He said that he wanted to see how long I could endure it.
"I stayed in this position for maybe an hour, with my eyes blindfolded again. When I could no longer manage and wanted to sit, he hit me hard below the chest. The blow threw me back. I felt as if my back was coming apart. I couldn't get up again. My head was on the floor and the pain was excruciating. He told me to get up, but I couldn't. I felt a sour liquid pouring out of my nose, and my stomach hurt. I stayed this way for about fifteen minutes." The interrogation continued.
Another technique is to tighten handcuffs in a way that stops the circulation of the blood. This description is from the testimony of 'Abd al-Halim 'Eiz a-Din: "Then two interrogators came, Segal and perhaps Lieut. Sagiv, put a thick bandage on my hands and put two handcuffs on me, each cuff on a different hand. They took a large quantity of paper towels and put them on their hands so it wouldn't hurt them, and together they pulled my hands backwards and began tightening the handcuffs. That causes a kind of pain that is indescribable. I felt that I had lost feeling in my palms, and particularly in my left palm, for two or three months. But I still feel pain in the bone between my wrist and my hand."
These excerpts are only a tiny sample from the repertoire of violent techniques that are aimed at breaking the prisoners physically and psychologically. Several speak of their fear that they would leave the interrogation as cripples, a fear the torturers exploited. Nor is this an empty threat. One of the victims, Luwaii Ashqar of Saida village, emerged from interrogation paralyzed.
For its part, the Israeli medical establishment-both inside and outside the prison-contributes to the process. Ashqar, for instance, complained that a vertebra had gone out of place and a wound had become infected, but it took five days before he was transferred to a hospital in Haifa. "In the Rambam Hospital they shackled my hands and legs. The doctor who came to check me asked what happened. When I started to tell him, the guards asked me to be quiet, and asked the doctor to go out with them. After the doctor returned, he conducted an intrusive exam. When it was finished, he said to me 'There's nothing wrong with you, and you're released.' I received medications, he put cream on the injured vertebra, and I was taken back to Jalameh [a prison]. In light of my situation...I was compelled to confess to what they asked me to confess."
Other victims of torture who testified to PCATI were checked at Hadassah and Shaarei Tzedek hospitals in Jerusalem. The medical staffs took no steps, and made no complaints, toward stopping the torture. They performed superficial diagnoses and quickly returned the patients to prison.
The research of HaMoked and B'tselem also revealed the regular use of techniques whose purpose was to break the prisoner by means of extreme pain. For example, several in the sample mentioned the methods described above: five reported on contortion of the back and three on the tightening of handcuffs near the elbow. The importance of this second report, however, lies in its survey of standard interrogation methods.
The procedure for breaking the prisoner begins with his arrest by the army. About half of those in the sample were beaten during arrest or while in military custody. About a third were cuffed in such a way as to maximize pain. A third were subjected to verbal abuse. About a fourth reported that they were blocked from performing vital functions, such as eating, drinking and going to the bathroom. Whether or not the soldiers' brutality derives from a specific order, it clearly helps "soften" the detainee.
On reaching the GSS Interrogation Center, the prisoner undergoes a "rite of passage." Many report on a medical examination in full nudity before the eyes of policemen, soldiers or jailers. They sign a form that lists their rights while making it plain that in a large degree they are subject to their interrogators. After this period of softening, the stage of actual interrogation begins.
The main tools for breaking the prisoners are sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, social deprivation and motor deprivation. When not in face-to-face interrogation, they are held in narrow isolation cells whose walls are painted gray. No sunlight enters. The cells are illuminated by a steady, dull electric light for 24 hours a day. Because no watches or clocks are permitted, these conditions lead the prisoners to lose the sense of time. Instead of natural ventilation, there is an air-conditioning system that is set at an uncomfortable temperature, for the most part cold. There is no exercise period. Rather, everything is geared to minimize sensory, physical and cognitive stimulation. The isolation cell contains a water faucet, sometimes over a sink, sometimes over the hole that serves as a toilet. The remaining furniture consists of a mattress and blankets, often damp and stinking. The food is made to look repulsive. The prisoner is reduced, in short, to a low level of biological existence.
In many cases sleep deprivation is used, both in the isolation cell and in the interrogation chamber. In the cell, the constant light impedes sleep, as does the cold and the clearly intentional noise made by the jailers. In the interrogation chamber, the prisoner is chained for hours to a chair, unable to move. The posture, even when not at first unnatural, quickly becomes unbearable. Until the High Court decision of 1999, the prisoners were held for hours outside the interrogation chambers, chained to low, tilted chairs, heads bagged, amid loud music. The High Court proscribed this technique, forbidding sleep deprivation as a means of interrogation. However, the Court did allow chaining for the purpose of protecting the interrogators, and it did permit lengthy and "intensive" interrogation, as required in each case by circumstances, even if sleep deprivation resulted as a side-effect. The GSS solution is to conduct "intensive interrogations" in the chamber, during which the prisoner is forced to remain awake, although most of the time no one asks him anything.
These deprivations have psychological and physical effects. Researches show that sensory deprivation can lead to disturbance of thought, hallucinations, loss of self-identity, depression and suicide. Consequences may persist in the long term. On the physical level, the body is weakened and becomes vulnerable to disease.
There is complete isolation from the external world. The courts routinely approve orders that prevent the prisoner from meeting with a lawyer. Sometimes they even allow the authorities not to tell the prisoner that such an order exists or was challenged in court: he might be encouraged by the fact that someone outside is fighting for him. A visit from the Red Cross will not take place until weeks have passed. There is no contact with other prisoners. In the intervals between face-to-face interrogations, he is held in isolation. On weekends, and at advanced stages of interrogation, the prisoner may be completely isolated for days on end, except for the extremely limited contact with those who bring him food.
The prisoners' only human contact is with the interrogators. The need for contact with other humans is exploited for purposes of interrogation. In an opinion attached to the report, psychiatrist Yehoachin Stein writes that "the collision between the loathing for the interrogator and the need for a human connection in a situation of total isolation creates an emotional confusion, feelings of guilt and a decline in self-esteem."
One of the final stages in almost every interrogation is the transfer to a cell with "stoolies," that is, Palestinians posing as prisoners whose task is to get the victim to talk. This technique is so transparent and common that it's hard to believe anyone would fall for it. Nevertheless, most of the prisoners reveal incriminating information at this stage. The writers of the report believe that the success of the stoolies depends on the interrogation's earlier phases. By this time a prisoner's power of judgment is distorted, and the hunger for human contact is tremendous. Because of the "work" done on him in the previous stages, he falls into the stoolies' hands like an apple ripe from the tree.
The GSS methods have changed since the High Court decision of 1999. But the reality in the interrogation chambers continues to be cruel and inhuman. I don't know what is more disturbing-the brutal techniques, which break bodies with intense pain, or the routine techniques for expunging the human spirit by absolute isolation and lack of stimulation. Both sorts fall under the categories of "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" and "torture." Both are absolutely forbidden by international law, without exception or qualification. The techniques, nonetheless, continue to be used-supported by the Attorney General's Office, the courts, and innumerable regular citizens who get involved in the procedures one way or another. The State of Israel has not denied a single substantive point in either of the two reports.
* The full version appears on the web:
Attorney Yossi Wolfson is a worker in HaMoked, The Center for the Defense of the Individual, based in East Jerusalem.